As China commemorated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in Beijing, replete with a made-for-television gala military parade, Hong Kong’s strife-torn streets arguably stole the show with some of the worst violence seen since protests first erupted 17 weeks ago.
Turmoil engulfed the Asian financial hub with intense clashes and bloodshed in various areas and districts of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. Street fires burned as masked protesters hurled petrol bombs at riot police officers, tore down national banners and defaced portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Tens of thousands thronged the streets chanting slogans “Fight for Freedom” and “Stand with Hong Kong” at a peaceful march early in the day, which later descended into chaos after standoffs with law enforcement personnel.
Police pushed back against the crowds with volleys of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and water cannons laced with blue dye.
Marking a potentially pivotal escalation, an 18-year-old man wielding what appeared to be a metal rod was filmed being shot at point-blank range during a frantic altercation with police alongside other masked protesters.
A police officer opened fire, striking him near his left shoulder, footage of the incident showed. In a statement, Police Senior Superintendent Yolanda Yu said the police force was “saddened” by the shooting.
“An officer felt his life was under serious threat, he fired a round at the assailant to save his own life and his colleagues’ lives,” she said in a recorded video message on Facebook. “The police force really did not want to see anyone being injured, so we feel very sad about this.”
Ahead of the day’s assemblies, police warned of protesters “resorting to terrorism” amid official expectations that demonstrators would come out in force to overshadow the choreographed festivities in Beijing celebrating seven decades of communist rule.
“They wanted the world focused on their big parade and display of military hardware. Instead, what they’ve got is a split-screen,” said Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center of the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
“The optics of mass demonstrations and fires, and a young student getting shot in the chest…That’s kind of the image that the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping definitely did not want at this point in time,” he told Asia Times.
While Hong Kong police have recently fired live rounds as warning shots, the shooting of a protester appears to mark a significant escalation.
The injured young man was reportedly in critical condition and being operated on at Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s cardio-thoracic surgery center at the time of publication.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the use of live ammunition “disproportionate” and called for “restraint and a de-escalation from both protesters and the Hong Kong authorities.” European Union spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic made similar remarks calling for restraint.
“Police seem to have carte blanche now to really try to crush this with much more force than they’ve been using in the past,” said Richburg. “But at the same time, the protesters, or at least the more radical elements of them, have arced up as well.
“I’ve seen more petrol bombs and more direct attacks on police using sticks, etcetera, than ever before. So, both sides seem to be ramping up on the violence. We don’t know where this is going to end up.”
Hong Kong police earlier posted images of an officer with chemical burns on his hands and torso, claiming protesters threw corrosive liquid at officers. In a statement, the force condemned the protesters as “rioters” who are “taking the law into their own hands.” More than 100 protesters were arrested on the day, according to reports.
In response to the day’s events, pan-democratic legislators issued a joint statement condemning Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam for traveling to Beijing while police had forewarned of chaos, a perceived dereliction of duty they said “was tantamount to authorizing police to administer Hong Kong.”
Ignoring a police ban on assembly, protesters spray-painted phrases such as “Hong Kong is not China” and “Chinazi” on roadsides throughout the city. Others vandalized MTR stations, government buildings, the offices of at least three pro-Beijing lawmakers, Bank of China branches and other shopfronts and businesses seen as being pro-Beijing.
“I reject China’s system, not their people,” Yunis, a 20-year-old protester, told Asia Times as she marched from Causeway Bay holding a brightly colored umbrella. “I just feel their system is too bad, I cannot accept it and put it in Hong Kong,” she said.
In a nationally televised speech, Xi said China would “maintain lasting prosperity and stability in Hong Kong and Macau” and uphold the “one country, two systems” principle underpinning the autonomous status of both territories.
Beijing’s critics accuse it of eroding that autonomy by inhibiting popular political reform in the former British colony, including universal suffrage.
China maintains that it has honored its autonomy pledges and recently described the defacing of national symbols by radical protesters an affront to the spirit of “one country, two systems.” Chinese officials have also raised the prospect intervening militarily in Hong Kong to quell ongoing protests, if requested to do so by the city’s government.
Protests in recent months have unfolded just meters from the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Hong Kong garrison, a compound that houses mainland military personnel who have a large but discreet presence in the city. Authorities in Hong Kong can request the PLA’s assistance in maintaining public order should they feel the situation is out-of-control.
According to a recent Reuters report, Beijing’s troop contingent in Hong Kong has more than doubled in size since the protests began. Citing diplomatic sources, the report claimed that China has recently built up its largest-ever active force of military personnel in the city under the guise of a routine troop rotation.
The reported build-up includes a mainland paramilitary anti-riot and internal security force known as the People’s Armed Police (PAP).
Though violence and clashes in the city have intensified and show little sign of abating, observers believe the high political cost of a Chinese military intervention resulting in numerous protester deaths makes such a scenario unlikely.
“A massive PLA or PAP intervention…would be costly for Beijing. Not only would it destroy any illusion that the ‘one country, two systems’ formula can still work, [but] it is likely to increase international pressure on Beijing,” Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), told Asia Times.
“One school of thought is that the Hong Kong government – or Beijing through the Hong Kong government – can whittle down support for the protests by using constant low-level violence, like beatings or roughing up people during arrests. Or by escalating [and] shooting people.
“The risk to this tactic for them is that it could inflame more people and increase the persistence and violence of responses. [Without] political reform, however, the fundamentals of Beijing’s difficulties with Hong Kong will remain unresolved,” he said.
As protesters mirror the police by ramping up violence in their nearly four-month-old protest movement, perceptions of Beijing chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomy continue to be the city’s most potent political flashpoint. Few analysts, however, expect China to budge on Hongkongers’ calls for universal suffrage and political reform.
“At the moment, this is nothing that the police can’t handle,” said Richburg. “This is not an armed insurrection or anything just yet. It’s still basically protesters throwing Molotov cocktails, most of them not very efficiently, and people showing up with sticks.
“This is not going to be solved by how many tanks or troops or how many police you can put on the streets. This is only going to be solved in a political way. That’s the main problem,” added the former longtime foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.
“They have to come up with some way to let people think that their demands are being listened to. But at the same time, Beijing keeps control and doesn’t want to look like it’s giving into street protests. How you untie that knot is the way you figure out how to solve the problem.”